Alexander Harvey – Desperado of the Fur Trade

Indians camped near Fort McKenzie, Montana

Indians camped near Fort McKenzie, Montana

A few years later, in 1843, Harvey was the principal culprit in a diabolical tragedy at Fort McKenzie, Montana. The trader in charge of the post was Francois A. Chardon, almost as desperate a character as Harvey himself. Through one of those chance misunderstandings which now and then occurred, a couple of Blackfoot Indians killed a black servant working at the post. It happened that Chardon thought a good deal of the fellow and in his exasperation, he resolved on a terrible revenge. He laid the matter before Harvey and the latter gladly agreed to carry out the details of Chardon’s plan. This was to have the cannon of the bastion trained upon the door of the fort when the next Blackfoot band came in to trade. Two or three of the chiefs would then be admitted, and while the door was crowded with Indians the cannon would be discharged and the three chiefs massacred. Though not as many were killed as Harvey had hoped, three died and three were wounded.

This was not the only atrocious deed by Alexander Harvey at Fort McKenzie. On another occasion when a party of five Indians undertook to steal some cattle belonging to the post, Harvey started out in pursuit. He soon overtook one Indian who had shot a cow, and firing at him, broke his thigh. The Indian fell to the ground and lay there when Harvey came up and sat down beside him. The heartless Harvey then lit a pipe and made the poor Indian smoke, saying “I am going to kill you, but I will give you a little time to take a good look at your country.” The Indian begged for his life, saying, “Comrade, it is true I was a fool. I killed your cow, but now you have broken my thigh; this ought to make us even — spare my life!’ “No,” said Harvey; “look well, for the last time, at all those nice hills — at all those paths which lead to the fort, where you came with your parents to trade, playing with your sweethearts — look at that, will you, for the last time.” So saying, with his gun pointed at the head of his victim, he pulled the trigger and the Indian was no more.

Harvey eventually became a very heavy burden to the American Fur Company, for although an able man and a good trader, his outrageous deeds were too much for his associates to endure. There was a strong undercurrent of feeling against him which was liable at any time to result in his murder. Harvey himself began to see that his life was in danger, and he was probably ready to relinquish the service as soon as he could decently do so.

The matter came to a head in 1845, when an abortive attempt to murder him ended in his severance of further connection with the company. Harvey was at this time in temporary charge of Fort Chardon, which had been built at the mouth of the Judith River after the abandonment of Fort McKenzie. Albert Culbertson went up with the spring outfit from Fort Union to take charge and build a new post farther up. Malcolm Clark, James Lee, and an interpreter named Jacob Berger were along. These three men were enemies of Harvey and concerted together to kill him.

When Harvey heard of the approach of the boat he rode some 20 miles downstream to meet it. Leaving his horse with a man who had come with him, he went on to the boat and entered the cabin. He offered to shake hands with Clark, but the latter replied that he would have nothing to do with such a man, and struck him over the head with a tomahawk. Berger also struck him with a rifle. Harvey grappled with Clark and would have thrown him into the river had not Lee disabled him with a blow from his pistol across the hand. Harvey then escaped to shore, took his horse and fled to the fort.

The employees took sides with him, and they placed the fort in a state of defense, refusing admission to any of the boat party. Finally, after much hard pleading, Culbertson was admitted. He had always been friendly to Harvey and he now agreed, on condition that Harvey would surrender the fort, to give him a draft for all his wages and a letter of recommendation. Harvey then left the fort in a canoe with one man.

Missouri Fur Company

Missouri Fur Company

After stopping for two days at Fort Union he pursued his course down the river. Before leaving he said, “Never mind! You will see old Harvey here again.” Harvey then reported the illegal sale of liquor by traders on the upper Missouri River. Afterward, he joined up with Robert Campbell and others in organizing the Missouri Fur Company in opposition to the American Fur Company. He was next working at Fort Campbell, Montana. He must have married sometime in his last years as in a letter written to Campbell on July 17, 1854, he asked him to care for his daughters. He died just a few days later on July 20, 1854, and was buried at Fort Pierre, South Dakota.

Hiram Martin Chittenden, 1902. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2019

About the Author:  This article was written by Hiram Martin Chittenden and included in his book, The American Fur trade of the Far West, published in 1902. Chittenden served in the Corps of Engineers, eventually reaching the rank of Brigadier General. During this time, he was in charge of many notable projects including work at the Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, and the Lake Washington Canal Project. He was also an author, penning historical volumes, tour guides, and poetry. The story, as it appears here, is not verbatim as it has been edited for clarity and ease of the modern reader.

Also See:

The Great Fur Trade Companies

Incidents of the Fur Trade

List of Old West Explorers, Trappers, Traders & Mountain Men

Trading Posts and Their Stories

Trading Posts of the Fur Trade

Trappers, Traders & Pathfinders

 

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